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How people power saved the Heath

A new book recounts the various battles and campaigns to save Hampstead Heath

27 June, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

The Hampstead Heath viaduct in 1913

WHEN you next stroll across the fields, hills and valleys of Hampstead Heath, pause for a moment and consider how you can be standing in the middle of a huge, sprawling city, yet be in the countryside.

According to author Helen Lawrence, who has written a comprehensive history of the battle to save the land for all, the Heath was not presented to the nation by a “benevolent benefactor”.

No: “It was wrested from destruction, piece by piece, by the determined actions of local people, ceaselessly lobbying Parliament and government,” she says.

Helen, a retired opera singer, has both chaired the Heath and Hampstead Society and been a vice president of the civic group. “My earliest memory is of a magical transformation that takes place along North End Road,” she recalls.

“I have never forgotten the wonderment. As if by magic you are in the country – the houses have all gone and the tree branches wave overhead. I used to wonder how that happened.”

Her book, How Hampstead Heath Was Saved: A Story of People Power, creates a rigorous picture of a space integral to London as its people, buildings and the Thames.

The battles to save the Heath from development in the 1800s had a wider effect, as Society president Lord Hoffman writes in the book’s foreword. It was part of a wider pattern in the Victorian era, led by the likes of John Ruskin, to kick back against the excesses of the dark, satanic mills.

“It was a product of a movement… to preserve and even revive the values, architecture and countryside of old England, and to resist the industrialisation and urbanisation which was destroying the opportunities of ordinary people for creativity in both work and leisure,” he writes. “It became a model for similar preservation societies in every town and village of the country.”

Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson

Helen points out that in 1871, only 220 acres from an original 500 were saved by an Act of Parliament from any further development – and that now it is much larger.

“The story of how that happened – the coming together of social and political, economic and artistic events all at the right moment to make this achievement possible – is a remarkable one,” she adds.

“It is a story of people power, the fruit of many large and small campaigns over a period of 100 years. It is the most extraordinary, involving legal strategems of every kind, in and out of Parliament, press campaigns, character assassination, perjury, wholesale misinformation and even accusations of bribery and blackmail.”

The story begins with background to where the land sat in terms of early London. “Its attraction was its utility rather than its scenic beauty,” writes Helen.

The ancient rights of commons were connected with agriculture, the taking of wood and peat for fuel, sand and stone, and fishing. The Heath was home to a laundry trade, with washerwomen using the fresh water and south facing slopes to dry cloth. The building of reservoirs in the 1700s met London’s growing needs.

The growth of Hampstead and the pressure on the Heath go hand in hand, says Helen.

In the 17th century Hampstead was home to labourers – but this changed as London became cramped and “city merchants began looking outside its walls to nearby villages”. This in turn meant that gradually the Heath was being used for new villas.

“By 1860, it had shrunk to 337 acres and in Georgian times, during the height of its first wave of popularity as a spa, demand for enclosures for building increased,” she adds.

All of this is scene setting, for the story Helen then launches into – the battle between those recognised the Heath’s value as an open space and Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, who had inherited it as part of a 2,000-acre estate and believed he had the right to do with the land as he pleased.

A rustic cottage near Jack Straw’s Castle

Before the war with Maryon Wilson started in earnest, the Heath’s gentle atmosphere helped create a love for the place that resonates today.

“Hampstead Heath was made for the Romantic era,” writes Helen.

“Almost every artist of note either lived in Hampstead at some point or visited it and as part of the Romantic ideal its beauty was an important element in changing attitudes towards them.”

This was mimicked by the land’s popularity with what Helen describes as “ordinary working people”.

“A piece of open countryside within walking distance of the old City, which they could visit for the day…. thus it built up a very special place in the affections of London people, treasured by everybody from the Queen to the working man.”

It meant that as Sir Thomas began a 40-year campaign – that ended only with his death – to sell for building, he faced a range of opponents. It set in motion a series of Bills presented to Parliament and counter campaigns.

We are taken through the 20th century, where pressures of funding, issues of management by the LCC and then the GLC and what that meant for the Heath, make intriguing reading.

Helen covers the City of London’s takeover 30 years ago up the present day, noting a number of current issues, showing how the Society’s watchful eyes have helped monitor the City’s work.

This is illustrated by the recent dams project, which the Society campaigned against. Three years after completion, the Heath has recovered well. Water quality has improved, dragonflies not seen for decades have been spotted, colossal banks of wild flowers and grasses have taken root. New trees and reed beds are flourishing.

The Society, in its various guises, has been a vigilant watchdog. This book celebrates that.

How Hampstead Heath Was Saved: A Story of People Power. By Helen Lawrence, Camden History Society and the Heath & Hampstead Society, £15

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